Better for Asia’s schoolchildren lose a year to COVID-19?

Asia’s poor have traditionally valued education. So much that they have been willing to sell prized possessions like family heirlooms and the father’s farming right hand — the carabao — just to send their children to school.

Whether this social value is eroding or not, tens of millions of Asian parents are preparing to send their children back to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that started in Wuhan, China. UNESCO says that 91 per cent of the world’s student population was affected when governments around the world temporarily closed schools from January to prevent the pandemic from spreading. (1)

How big is this student population involved? The Asia-Pacific has 60 per cent of the world’s young people, or 750 million youths 15—24 years old. India alone has 234 million young people, the highest number of any country in the world, followed by China with 225 million. Japan, an ageing country, has 12 million young people. (2)

The huge question now is how to reopen?

The pandemic is still raging, but education is lagging. Parents and teachers who prefer the traditional system are worried that we may never be able to go back to the old system — i.e., face-to-face learning, reinforced with smiles and back patting and aided by digital technology whenever available. We never knew we had the ideal system — until we lost it via Wuhan, perhaps forever.

New schism following COVID–19

UNESCO says it in bureaucratese which somehow sounds more impressive: “Education itself will be defined by a new schism — the policies and practices before COVID-19, and those that will come to define the next generation of learning.” (1) Amen.

Before COVID-19 we had face-to-face schooling. Since that will no longer be feasible now on a large scale given the gigantic national populations we are dealing with, we have to search for a combination of approaches.

We now have to invent a system for the next generation of learning. The schools in Asia are experimenting with various modes of delivery of their educational content. Predictably, most have gone online, like the universities in Indonesia’s most populated island of Java.

Study from home is the most obvious option. But while the universities may be able to do this, the primary and secondary levels cannot because of sheer numbers. The divide between the digital haves and have-nots stand in the way. Most of these Asian countries do not have the digital infrastructure and technology to deliver the educational messages. (3)

A majority of these students have limited school-provided computer labs and equipment. Many do not have access to fast and unlimited Internet on their mobile devices.

Internet penetration in Asia ranges from super low in Central and South Asia to super high in East Asia. Low Internet examples are Kyrgyzstan with 38 per cent penetration, Tajikistan with 31 per cent and Pakistan with 32 per cent. At the high end of the spectrum are South Korea with 96 per cent Internet penetration, Japan with 93 per cent and Taiwan with 92 per cent. (3)

In the middle are the Asian giants — China with 59 per cent Internet penetration, India with 40 per cent and Indonesia with 62 per cent. The South Asian country Bangladesh is at 58 per cent. In the broader middle are the mix of ASEAN countries, ranging from Brunei with 95 per cent, Singapore 88 per cent and Malaysia 81 per cent, to Laos 42 per cent, Cambodia 47 per cent and Myanmar 40 per cent. (3)

However, UNESCO is working with countries in the region to mobilise solutions to “provide education remotely, leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches through formal and non-formal approaches”. (1)

In other words, anything goes since nobody really knows what to expect. This is unchartered territory.

Blended approach

A blended approach proposed by the Philippines may work. The blended approach, as the name implies, is a combination of methodologies to deliver the knowledge. The approach entails a combination (or a mix) of various approaches which evokes images of a Filipino dish — the halo-halo (or mix-mix) of various tropical fruits served as refreshments with milk and crushed ice.

This mix-mix includes college students learning from home in countries or areas where the Internet is adequate — digital learning through computers for college students of families who can afford the equipment in places where high speed Internet is available.

For the highly developed countries where students will be able to complete schooling via Internet, can you imagine digital classes having their reunions ten years from now? They will have a hard time partying with fellow alumni whom they have met only on the Internet. Or one may show up at a reunion by his lonesome self?

If college students go digital in developed countries, it will reduce traffic and help primary and secondary school students. For non-college students, when they reach school they will be subjected to the usual protocols — daily temperature checks, face masks, social distancing, use of hand disinfectants, regular disinfection of classrooms and equipment, with resident school doctors and nurses, and school-prepared meals served in the school cafeteria.

But even this option has its critics. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself prefers to wait until a vaccine is available before restarting classes to protect the children from COVID-19, and ultimately, the vulnerable adults in households. My optimistic estimate is that the vaccine may take another year to materialise.

Fearless forecast

This leads me to my fearless forecast. Even this blended approach may take time to implement. The COVID-19 pandemic will, in all probability, get worse before it gets better. In the US, Brazil, Russia and India, cases are now spiking alarmingly.

We cannot rush back to school. It will take two years to vaccinate people: one year to produce a vaccine and another year to perfect it and give doses to people. This is precisely why we need time for schools to resume, preferably one, two years at most. We can use this time to upgrade our Internet and digital systems so that when the time comes, college students can go online and primary and secondary students can go to school.

We expect the digital experts work side by side with the curriculum specialists to prepare the syllabi. Countries will be scrounging for funds to survive this pandemic but we hope they have enough credit to borrow from the World Bank or Asian Development Bank.
This reminds an octogenarian like me of the time when I was in grade school at the start of World War II in 1941—1944 when the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines. We had no school then. When the war ended, we just compressed three school years into two and promoted everyone by one grade based on qualifying exams given mid-year.

Just forget school for this year and encourage self-study with the help of parents. When we have the vaccine, we can safely go back to school next year, aided by improved Internet and digital systems. If there is still no vaccine next year, then governments must reassess the current situation by then and decide whether to resume classes or further delay schooling by another year.

To take care of the lag, promote everybody by one year two years from now. We do need to rush back to school. But we have to make haste slowly.

[REFERENCES]
  1. Education and COVID-19 (UNESCO), 17 Apr 2020.
  2. Analyzing the state of education across Asia, from grade school to trade school, Development Asia: A Publication of the Asian Development Bank, April–June 2011
  3. Internet World Stats
Crispin C. Maslog, former journalist with Agence France-Presse, is an environmental activist and former science journalism professor, Silliman University and University of the Philippines Los Baños, Philippines. He is a founding member and now Chair of the Board, Asian Media Information and Communication Centre, Manila.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.
Attached files
  • A school in Thailand requires people to wear masks before entering the campus. Image credit: Per Meistrup (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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